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Conducting a train can be a real toot

Published October 12, 2012

It was a beautiful day among the rolling hills of rural Durham Region when I got a chance to drive a heritage locomotive in Uxbridge.

What I didn’t expect was a brush with tragedy.

The York-Durham Heritage Railway opened in 1996 using a rail line built in the 1860s to allow Toronto distiller William Gooderham to transport grain to his distillery and lumber for export.

The route holds historical significance for Ontario: during the first and second World Wars, every soldier both departed and arrived home on these tracks.

My instructors are Brad Lawrance, locomotive engineer, and Anthony Thompson, operations manager for the YDHR.

Both are volunteers for the train, which runs excursions over a 20 km route between Stouffville, Goodwood and Uxbridge.

Lawrance gives me a quick tour of the controls: one lever controls reverse, drive and neutral. A second lever controls the throttle, from 1 to 8.

There are two brakes: the first is a lever hand control, the second is a foot pedal called the Dead Man’s brake. The conductor (driver) must press the Dead Man’s brake whenever the train is moving. If he becomes incapacitated for any reason, his foot slides off and the train stops.

I was hoping we wouldn’t need it today.

A digital screen shows our speed — in miles per hour, like all trains in North America.

As we set off from the station, we soon hit a road crossing on the main drag in town. I pull on the whistle: two longs, one short, one long — loud enough that it could be heard all over downtown Uxbridge.

As the crossing gate comes down and the cars pile up, it’s a thrill to slowly chug across the street. It must have been puzzling for motorists to see a stranger in a pink conductor hat at the helm.

Away from town, we roll along the tree-lined tracks. With only pristine wilderness around us, it’s easy to envision a time when trains dominated the frontier.

With a loud, powerful engine propelling us slowly and steadily forward through a narrow corridor in the trees, I feel like a pioneer forging through the unblemished wilderness.

Lawrance patiently helps me control the train’s speed using the brake lever. Even a slight decline in elevation that is nearly imperceptible will cause the train to accelerate.

The faster you go, the less control you have. The challenge is to moderate the speed to keep us going between 5 and 8 m.p.h. without braking so hard that we stop.

An experienced conductor knows the tracks well and can detect changes in elevation that a rookie doesn’t feel. And with trees lining each side, using bends in the tracks as landmarks is important, too.

Then my troubles began.

As I tried to master the brake, up ahead I could see a person walking along the tracks. I panicked. What should I do? I looked to Lawrance for help.

He said tug the whistle. I did. The person didn’t move away from the tracks. Couldn’t he hear us? Didn’t he know we were approaching with a force that simply can’t be contained quickly?

I was frozen by the utter helplessness of being at the helm of impending disaster . . . at 5 m.p.h.!

We slowed as much as we could and rounded a bend to find that the man had finally moved away from the tracks. Like an apparition, he had disappeared. As relief washed over me, I vowed to never again breach the yellow caution area while waiting for the subway. Those lines are there for a reason.

On the return trip, Lawrance helps me to bring the train into the station. It’s fun to use the horn and whistle, but I now realize it’s not just fun and games. Conducting a train is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

We pull into the station and I linger in the conductor’s seat, soaking it all in, as Lawrance and Thompson tend to the train.

When Lawrance returns 15 minutes later, I ask, “Is it OK to take my foot off the Dead Man’s brake?”

He fights back a smile as he replies, “Yes.”

For more on the York-Durham Heritage Railway, go to ydhr.ca.

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